Forty-three years ago this week, the sixth team of Apollo lunar explorers—and only the third to accomplish a landing on the Moon’s dusty surface—headed back to Earth after a mission which restored confidence in America’s space program after the near-disastrous Apollo 13. Astronauts Al Shepard, Stu Roosa, and Ed Mitchell brought a scientific yield back home which illustrated that the Moon was a far more complex celestial body than previously believed. The mission of Apollo 14 itself was extraordinarily complex, but it was also a very human story of one man’s battle against almost impossible odds to regain flight status, a story which carried more than its fair share of highs and lows … and the story of the Moon’s first golfer.
In the early hours of 5 February 1971, five days since leaving Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, Shepard and Mitchell brought their lunar module Antares to a smooth touchdown in the Moon’s hummocky Fra Mauro foothills, as Roosa orbited overhead in the command and service module, Kitty Hawk. As described in yesterday’s history article, it had not been a perfect descent, having been marred by problems with Antares’ critical landing radar, which almost caused the mission to be aborted. In the first few minutes after touching down on the Moon, Mitchell turned to Shepard and asked him if he would really have aborted the mission if the radar had not locked-on in time.
Shepard, ever the test pilot, grinned. “Ed,” he said, “you’ll never know!”
Earlier, when Capcom Fred Haise had advised him to consider looking over the abort procedures, Shepard responded, with clear sarcasm in his voice, that he was well aware of the rules. Knowing Shepard as everyone did, it seems more than likely that after 10 years waiting for this opportunity to land on the Moon, he would have rewritten the mission rules on the spot: As long as the vehicle continued to fly beautifully and everything else seemed to be going well, he would have attempted to land, even without the aid of the radar. In fact, in his memoir Moon Shot, co-authored with Deke Slayton, he wrote that, with the future of Apollo hanging by a thread, there was no alternative but to land. …
Others were more skeptical. In his autobiography, Failure Is Not An Option, Flight Director Gene Kranz recalled the feelings of fellow Flight Director Gerry Griffin and his team. “On Apollo 14,” he wrote, “the error in the LM computer’s knowledge of the actual altitude was almost 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) before the landing radar data update. With an error this great in the computer, Griffin and the [flight controllers] were convinced Shepard would have run out of fuel before landing. But everyone who knew Al never doubted he would have given it a shot. We also never doubted he would have had to abort. The fuel budget was just too tight.”
Early on 5 February 1971, it was a moot issue. Shepard and Mitchell had become the third team of human lunar explorers to make landfall on the Moon. Glancing at the bright, undulating terrain of Fra Mauro beyond Antares’ triangular windows, both men reported that it was considerably more rugged than Tranquillity Base or the Ocean of Storms. There was certainly more topographic relief, Mitchell added, than they had anticipated by looking at their maps. Even before they ventured outside, a key obstacle of operating on the Moon was apparent: The complete absence of any recognizable features made it incredibly difficult to judge distances. Indeed, Shepard and Mitchell would come face to face with this problem during their second Moonwalk. The lack of a sensible atmosphere lent an unreal clarity to the scene, and the horizon seemed to slope noticeably away from them, framed by a totally black sky. Unlike Earth, they could actually sense that they were on a spherical body.
Just under five hours later, at 8:54 a.m. EST, after abandoning plans to take an early rest period, Shepard dropped down onto the surface of that spherical body and planted his boots into lunar soil. The importance of first words had been on everyone’s mind, it seemed, even as Neil Armstrong prepared for Apollo 11, and the need to prove a point and win a bet had been Conrad’s primary motivation for what he had said on Apollo 12. In Shepard’s case, however, a dozen years since joining the astronaut corps and after the better part of a decade spent chained to a desk, his words were profound for a different reason: for they reflected the end of a long and difficult journey. Not only had he beaten Ménière’s Disease, not only would he become the only one of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts to set foot on the Moon … but he had overcome all the odds in being able to fly again. Clinging tentatively onto Antares’ ladder, he turned and looked out onto the barren landscape and an eerie silence of ages, all around him.
“It’s been a long way,” he said, wonder evident in his voice, “but we’re here.”
Moving around the lander, he gazed to the east and could clearly see the ridge which he and Mitchell would attempt to negotiate the following day to reach the 1,000-foot-diameter (300-meter) Cone Crater, whose depth was thought to reach about 250 feet (76 meters). The entire Fra Mauro region was believed to have been formed by ejecta from the impact which created the enormous (and ancient) Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains), in the Moon’s northwestern quadrant. It was hoped that by finding and gathering samples from Cone, the astronauts might be able shed new light on the nature of the impact, estimates of whose age range between 3 billion and 4.5 billion years old.
For now, though, Mitchell himself was itching to get outside. With both men on the surface, they began assembling the customary Stars and Stripes, the erectable S-band antenna, the solar wind composition experiment, a rickshaw-like tool carrier known as the Modular Equipment Transporter (MET), and the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP). For the latter, they picked a spot to the west of Antares, setting up the nuclear-powered central station, from which radiated, in a star-like formation, its five main research instruments: the passive and active seismic experiments, which were designed to acquire data about the physical properties of the lunar crust, together with a cold cathode gauge to monitor the density of the Moon’s atmosphere, a suprathermal ion detector to measure the composition of its ionosphere, and a charged-particle detector to study the solar wind impinging on the lunar surface.
Of these, the active seismic device is particularly notable, since it required the implantation of three “geophones” onto the surface, in a straight line at distances of 10 feet (three meters), 165 feet (50 meters), and 330 feet (100 meters) from the ALSEP’s central station. These provided a sort of mechanical “ear,” which Mitchell activated using a “thumper” to produce a series of artificial quakes. “Earlier lunar seismic experiments,” Time magazine told its readers on 1 February, “have been largely passive; that is, the seismometers have usually depended on the occurrence of Moonquakes or other natural rumblings to make readings.” Now, with the help of the thumper, not dissimilar in shape to a heavily-weighted walking stick, Mitchell was to detonate a series of 21 charges as he walked down the line. The intention was that the geophones would determine the travelling time of seismic waves created by the charges and measure their velocity through the lunar surface material. However, eight charges failed to fire, and Mitchell had a fit over the others. “Houston,” he radioed, “this thing’s got a pretty good kick to it.” Far from having the desired effect of a moderate firecracker, they seemed more like both barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun going off. The seismologists back on Earth were pleased, but the job of the astronauts had not been an easy one. As Shepard later wrote: “It was quite a trick to take the Moon’s pulse when you’re on another world.” They also set up a mortar unit that was to lob grenade-like charges several hundred metres after the crew had left the Moon to extend the seismic survey, but it was never actually used.
Enabling them to transport a wide range of equipment—including cameras and lenses, sample bags, trenching tools, tongs, scoops, core tubes, hammers, brushes, maps, and a gnomon to be placed next to samples in order to indicate vertical and the illumination conditions—across the hilly terrain was the 18-pound (8.2-kg) MET, a sort of two-wheeled, two-legged caddy which the astronauts pulled along by hand. Despite a number of puns from jokers that it would enable “Old Man Shepard” to take a breather when he got tired, it was capable of holding 350 pounds (160 kg) of equipment, but would only be used on this single mission. It tended to become bogged down in lunar dust, which seemed somewhat thicker and deeper than the soils encountered by Apollos 11 and 12. It was like dragging a golf buggy through deep sand. Moreover, being lightweight, it tended to bounce in the low lunar gravity and one man had to follow on behind to pick up items that fell.
A common misconception over the years was that the MET was scheduled to have been aboard Jim Lovell’s ill-fated Apollo 13 mission to Fra Mauro. This was not, in fact, the case. Originally, the MET was manifested on Apollos 14-16, after which the final flights (17-20) would carry the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). When Apollos 18-20 were scrubbed during 1970, the remaining missions were retasked: LRVs were reassigned to Apollos 15-17, and Shepard’s flight wound up as the only expedition to feature the MET.
In between tugging the MET, they found that the easiest form of locomotion was a sort of one-two, one-two, one-two gait, akin to a horse’s trot, rather than the standard left-right moves of a jogger. With every step, they involuntarily kicked up clouds of lunar dust, whose consistency they likened to talcum powder, and this quickly clung to their boots and worked its way up their legs. Ahead of them, the harsh glare of lunar sunlight made shadows unreliable, distance difficult to judge, and, with no visible points of reference, craters seemed to appear at their feet, as if from nowhere. Boulders which looked to be some way off were suddenly within spitting distance. Unlike Earth-based walking, they had to “plan” each step four or five steps in advance. It was, said Shepard, like trying to find one’s way across the featureless expanse of the Sahara Desert.
Four hours and 47 minutes after the last wisps of air had been vented from Antares, the two men lugged the last of their rock and soil samples inside the lander and repressurized the cabin. Their sleep that night was far from comfortable, particularly since Shepard had set the lander down with one footpad in a shallow crater, meaning their whole point of reference was noticeably tilted to one side. Within the darkened cabin, shades having been put up against the triangular windows and the small rendezvous window in the roof, the sensation was one of silent, eerie stillness in the desolate landscape of Fra Mauro. With his burgeoning interest in psychic phenomena, it is not surprising that Mitchell acutely sensed the spiritual weight of being the only two living creatures on this otherwise lifeless world. Every so often, he rose from his hammock to lift the shades and gaze outside at the desolate, alien scene.
On more than one occasion, both men were also awakened from their light slumbers by the mild groaning of Antares’ systems, the rustling of its paper-thin walls and the gentle hiss of its life-support machinery; Shepard even wondered if the lander was tipping over. One conversation between them is particularly comical:
“Ed? Did you hear that?” Shepard whispered.
“Hell, yes, I heard that.”
“What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know.”
A few seconds passed. Then:
“Why the hell are we whispering?”
By 3:30 a.m. EST on 6 February, they were back outside, loading the MET with their tools to begin the traverse to Cone Crater, from where it was expected they would photograph the interior and gather samples from the rim. Perhaps, lunar geologists hoped, those samples would reveal clues about the Imbrium impact.
The hike across the hummocky terrain proved tougher than anticipated. With Shepard pulling the MET and Mitchell studying the map, it became clear after an hour that the rim of Cone Crater was farther away than expected. “Checkpoint” craters which seemed obvious on the map were now hard to find, and the whole region seemed like an endless “sea” of sand dunes, with yawning depressions, perhaps 16 feet (five meters) deep, everywhere. “That next crater,” they would think, “ought to be 330 feet (100 meters) away” … but invariably, it was nowhere to be found. Sometimes, Shepard later wrote, they “would appear to walk along flat ground when their legs disappeared and reappeared, like small ships on a heaving sea. In reality, they strode through great shallows in the plains of Fra Mauro.”
With difficulty, they found their first sampling stop, then their second, and managed to linger for just a few minutes to grab some rock and soil specimens, take a few photographs, and acquire readings with their portable magnetometer. Then it was time to tackle the ridge itself. Here, Shepard and Mitchell found surer, firmer footing, but as they threaded their way upward the presence of rocks everywhere slowed their progress considerably. Whenever the MET hit a rock it jumped up off the ground, and the astronauts were concerned that it might topple over. At length, Shepard grabbed it, and the two men carried it.
Watching from Mission Control, in addition to Capcom Fred Haise—who had trained to perform just this traverse as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 13—were the backup landing team of Gene Cernan and Joe Engle. Before launch, they had bet Shepard and Mitchell a case of scotch that they would be unable to make it up the ridge whilst dragging the bulky MET behind them.
“There are two guys sitting next to me who kinda figured you’d end up carrying it up,” Haise observed.
Yet the climb was difficult and their bulky space suits fought their every move. Every so often, Shepard and Mitchell paused for a breather and took time to look back down the slopes toward Antares; clearly visible in the slanting lunar sunlight were the tracks from the MET’s two rubber wheels, interspersed with their own bootprints. It was becoming increasingly clear, though, that they were still far from their objective. The lack of reliable landmarks and the unreal clarity of the scene made it impossible to determine exactly where they were; at one stage, convinced that they were approaching the rim of Cone Crater, both men were disappointed that they had only crested an inflection in the flank of the ridge, and that their climb was not yet over. After the mission, they would liken the optically illusive effect to looking at a mountain in clear air conditions on Earth; although a peak might seem to be quite close, in reality it was some distance away.
Many of the geologists listening to Shepard and Mitchell’s efforts were not surprised that they were having trouble navigating their way around. It was one thing to recognize a lunar feature from orbit, but something quite different to view it on the surface. The climb was steadily taking it out of the astronauts—at one point, Shepard’s heart rate reached 150 beats per minute—and the flight surgeon asked for a pause, then queried the geologists: How important was it to reach the rim of Cone Crater? From the perspective of better understanding the Moon’s early history, it was important, but not vital. It was believed that rocks near the crater’s edge would yield some of the deepest and oldest material. In effect, the crater was a drill hole that would enable them to sample material that was otherwise deeply buried. By finding such material, Shepard and Mitchell would be travelling back in time, to only a few hundred million years after the Moon’s formation.
The men’s thoughts seemed to be diverging at this stage, more than an hour into the traverse, with Shepard keen to gather samples where they were at that time and then turn back, and Mitchell eager to press on. Mitchell felt that the mission would be a failure if they did not reach the rim of Cone Crater, if only to have the awe-inspiring opportunity to look into its 1,000-foot (300-meter) bowl. On the other hand, geologists doubted that they would see anything of significance, because photographs from orbit showed no signs of exposed layering or other significant structural features. The message to call a halt was passed to Fred Haise. They should, he told Shepard and Mitchell, consider where they were to be the edge of the crater.
Mitchell was bitterly disappointed. “Think you’re finks!” he said. However, Haise gave them some good news: If they thought that they could reach the rim soon, they could press on a little further. Shepard decided to give it a shot. On and on they climbed, again stopping for a breather a few minutes past 5 a.m. EST, gazing in bewilderment at the enormous boulders all around them, ejected by the impact which formed Cone Crater. From Mission Control, Deke Slayton offered to cover Cernan and Engle’s bet if they left the MET and carried on without it. Much as Shepard and Mitchell appreciated the thought, neither of them wanted to leave their stash of geology tools behind. As far as they knew, they might be almost at the rim.
Another breather. Both men were drenched in perspiration, gulping intakes of oxygen, and the internal temperatures of their suits were rising dramatically. The search was proving fruitless. At length, Shepard radioed: “We’re right in the middle of the boulder field on the west rim. We haven’t quite reached the rim yet.” Mitchell took this as an admission that the search was over. In fact, both astronauts believed themselves to be at different places: Shepard thought they were close to the crater’s western edge, but Mitchell was sure that they were somewhere to the south. If they headed north, Mitchell argued, they would reach the rim. They continued walking and, studying his map, Mitchell was convinced that they should be able to see a prominent boulder. They could not … and by this point, nearly two hours since leaving Antares, they were running out of time. Haise told them to stop searching for the crater and begin taking samples.
The return downhill toward the lander, though disappointing, was exhilarating and both men could take full advantage of one-sixth terrestrial gravity, bounding in wide, slow-motion jumps. Back at the LM, they loaded the rock and soil boxes—totalling 99 pounds (45 kg) of lunar material—inside and took a few moments to catch a last glimpse of Fra Mauro. Before returning inside, Shepard took one final chance to have a spot of fun on the Moon, taking a golf ball from his pocket and dropping it onto the surface. (He had gotten the idea when he showed comedian Bob Hope around Mission Control a few months earlier.) “Houston,” he radioed, “I have in my hand the handle for the contingency sample return and just so happens I have a genuine six-iron on the bottom of it. In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I drop it down.”
Unfortunately, with the stiffness of the suit, Shepard could only operate one-handed and his first swipe missed totally. Mitchell told him that he got more dirt than ball. A second swipe shanked the ball and sent it into a pathetic dribble. He dropped a second ball into the dust. This time, he was more successful, and the ball sailed in impossibly slow motion into the distance. “Miles and miles!” he cried. In truth, it flew a few hundred feet. Before launch, he had told Deke Slayton, who made him promise only to do it if everything else was going well, but Mitchell had not been made privy to the caper.
In fact, Shepard had sneaked out of crew quarters on a number of occasions, donned his suit, and practiced his swing. The last thing he wanted, with a worldwide audience tuning in, was to fall flat on his face. …
By the time Antares’ cabin was repressurized, the second Moonwalk had lasted four hours and 35 minutes, bringing the Apollo 14 experience to over nine hours. Subsequent analysis of Shepard and Mitchell’s photographs, correlated with images from orbit, would show that they came within 66 feet (20 meters) or so of the rim of Cone Crater. In fact, a large saddle-shaped rock they had sampled was on Mitchell’s map! A few steps farther north, and they would have seen the pit of Cone Crater open up before them! Less than eight hours later, Antares’ ascent stage was barreling its way back into orbit in order to rejoin Kitty Hawk.
During his time alone aboard the command module Kitty Hawk, their crewmate Stu Roosa had undertaken much of the detailed observation work originally planned for Apollo 13. Key to this effort was the huge Hycon Lunar Topographic Camera, which he had installed in the command module’s hatch window. The device, with its motorized film transport, exposure controls, and timer, was capable of resolving surface features just a couple of metres across, although it had proven somewhat sluggish to get up and running. It took 140 frames, then began making peculiar clanking noises. Roosa unplugged its cables and reconnected them, to no avail, and despite troubleshooting advice from Houston, he ran out of time and had to press on with other work.
Docking at 3:35 p.m. EST was followed by the sound of Shepard knocking from his side of the hatch. “Who’s there?” asked Roosa, before admitting them. A perfect SPS burn later that day set them on course for home. The return journey was a calm one, although a few experiments were performed in electrophoresis, liquid transfer between containers, heat transfer, and the casting of materials from a molten state. Kitty Hawk splashed down in the South Pacific, within view of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. New Orleans at 4:05 p.m. EST on 9 February 1971, exactly 43 years ago today.
With the exception of narrowly missing the rim of Cone Crater and the close shaves during the journey to the Moon, Apollo 14 had proven hugely successful. In the eyes of the space workforce, Shepard, Roosa, and Mitchell had saved the lunar program and recovered from the ordeal that had befallen Jim Lovell’s crew. Yet the public at large still seemed peculiarly disenchanted by the prospects of further Moon landings. Only three more expeditions remained on NASA’s books, although those were expected to be the grandest of all. All three would be designated as “J-series” lunar voyages and would spend three days on the surface, feature three Moonwalks as long as seven hours apiece and conduct advanced scientific research from orbit.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on STS-82, NASA’s second shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in February 1997. When set alongside the historic STS-61 Hubble repair mission, STS-82 was viewed by the public as a routine “oil change” … but was actually one of the most complex shuttle flights ever attempted.
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Ben, thank you again for another masterpiece!
Ben, thanks again for a great article that allowed me to relive the mission.
An excellent set of articles Ben. With the premiere on 9 March of the updated COSMOS series originally created by Carl Sagan, hopefully there will be a resurgence of public interest in space exploration. (And hopefully Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson won’t have to sing, dance, or “twerk” to hold that interest).